Feds Propose Rule for Captioning Services at the Movies

Audience members wait for a screening at a film festival.

Audience members wait for a screening at a film festival. Matej Divizna / Getty Images file

The Justice Department is proposing a new federal rule that would require most movie theaters to provide closed captioning and audio description services for people with hearing and vision disabilities.

Closed movie captioning delivers captions only to the seat of a person who wants to see them. In many theaters, the captions are displayed backwards on the rear wall. The customer inserts into the seat's cup holder a reflective panel on a flexible arm that allows the mirror image of the caption to be seen. The captions are not displayed on the movie screen itself, so they're not seen by most of the audience.

Audio description, delivered by wireless headsets, provides a spoken narration of visual elements of a movie.

"This proposed rule will allow all Americans, including those with disabilities, to fully participate in the moviegoing experience," said Attorney General Eric Holder. The requirement would be part of the rules under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The proposed regulation would require theaters to have the capability for exhibiting movies with closed movie captioning and audio description, to provide notice about the availability of these services, and to ensure that theaters have staff available who can explain how they work.

Theaters would be required comply "unless doing so would result in an undue burden or fundamental alteration." The rule would apply to digital movies that already come with the caption and description service. The government says the vast majority of new releases are produced with these services and that roughly 90 percent of all U.S. movie screens now show digital films.

The Justice Department estimates the cost of implementation between $178 million and $226 million.

The Justice Department says people who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind, or have low vision represent an increasing proportion of the U.S. population. But, it says, the number of movie theaters with closed captioning and audio description devices varies widely, depending on where the theater is located and who owns it.

The rule would not specify which movies a theater must exhibit. But when movies come with the caption and audio services, the theaters would be required to install and maintain the proper equipment. Drive-in theaters would be exempt.

“We are reviewing the proposed rule and will make our formal comments to the Justice Department at a later date," said John Fithian, President of the National Association of Theatre Owners.